Reza Aslan on looking for the real Jesus, the threat of fundamentalist literalism, and making white heads explode

If you spend any time at all on the internet, you likely saw a video making the rounds yesterday of religious scholar Dr. Reza Aslan repeatedly defending his decision to write a book about the life of Jesus to Fox News host Lauren Green, who clearly felt as though the subject should be off limits to him, as he’s a practicing Muslim. (Video of the interview is below, for those of you who haven’t seen it.) Well, Aslan showed up today on Reddit, answering people’s questions. And, as I really liked what he had to say, I thought that I’d pass along a few quotes. If you like them, I’d encourage you to read the whole thing here… And, by the way, why do we allow Anthony Bourdain to keep write about global cuisine when he’s not food?


Q: I was just amazed on how you kept your cool with that woman. I would have lost it after the second time you had to explain that writing about religions was your actual job.

A: When you are a brown Muslim man from Iran talking about Jesus, you must always remain calm.

Q: How do you deal with people not understanding that your personal religious beliefs are independent from your work as a religious scholar? I’ve been thinking about this a lot in light of your recent response to Fox News. It’s frustrating for me, so it must be painfully frustrating for you. How has the hate that stems from the inability of people to distinguish belief vs. historical fact affected you personally and emotionally? It’s got to take a toll on a person.

A: It’s funny. No one asks the hundreds of authors who have written about Islam if their faith influences their books. A good scholar makes a differentiation between the study of religion and the experience of faith. They are not one and the same!

Q: What was going on in your mind when she (the reporter from Fox) kept going back to, “You’re a Muslim”? This is your CAREER, it has nothing to do with your religion, and this lady kept attacking you based on your beliefs and not your credentials.

A: Look, I get it. There are people who are afraid, and who feel attacked by a book that questions some of their most basic beliefs. But Jesus said to build your faith on the rock, not on sand. If your faith is strong, then nothing I say should be able to shake it. So relax. Pick up the book. Debate its arguments. But don’t be afraid.

Q: I wonder if you can elaborate more on the political and (I believe racially tinged) motivations behind Ms. Green’s line of questioning in your recent Fox News interview. Watching the interview, it was clear that Ms. Green’s questions repeatedly sought to discredit and situate your scholarly research as something outside of “the academy” and a voice not to be trusted merely because of your faith. Have you encountered this same kind of distrust and skepticism in researching other world religions or has the political pushback been most critical with regards to your research on Christianity?

A: Look, every news outlet (even CNN) has political motivations, but ultimately cable news is a commercial enterprise. The ONLY thing that matters is getting folks to the commercial, selling them Coke and Viagra. So the same considerations that go into filling a one hour daytime soap opera is what goes into an editorial board meeting at many news outlets. HOW DO WE GET PEOPLE TO WATCH? That is the ONLY question that matters.


Q: As a scholar of religion, do you believe in one true faith?

A: I think the Buddha said it right: If you want to draw water you do not dig six one foot wells. You dig one six foot well. Islam is my six foot well. I like the symbols and metaphors it uses to describe the relationship between God and humanity. But I recognize that the water I am drawing is the same water that every other well around me is drawing. And no matter the well, the water is just as sweet!

Q: As someone who has invested so much time in to the study of world religions what leads you to identify with a specific one? I’m not trying to suggest that you’re asserting “fact” in doing so, but merely curious as to how you came to choose Islam as your personal belief system — why not some combination of all the different belief systems you’ve seen? What about it struck you as most desirable?

A: Religion is nothing but a signpost to God. If you believe there is something beyond the material, and if you want to commune with that “thing” then it helps to have a set of symbols and metaphors to help you talk about it – both to yourself and to other people. That is ALL religion is supposed to be. A language of symbol and metaphors to help you make sense of something that is ineffable. I just happen to prefer the symbols and metaphors of Islam. That’s all.

Q: Has studying religion influenced your faith? Do you find new things that change your view of the things you believe?

A: Yes absolutely. It is difficult to study the world’s religions and not recognize that they are pretty much all saying the exact same things, often in exactly the same way. Some scholars think that’s because there’s something in the human mind, or in human societies, that longs for divine connection, and so comes up with similar answers in the pursuit of God. Maybe. But it could be just as conceivable that the reason we all talk about God in pretty much the same way (though with different symbols and metaphors) is because we are all talking about the same God!


Q: Is there any hard evidence that Jesus of Nazareth existed? I think many people just take it for granted that he existed and that the Bible itself is more than enough evidence. Is there anything else?

A: Outside of the Bible there is almost no trace whatsoever of the historical Jesus. However, in 94AD (60 years after Jesus died) a Jewish historian named Josephus casually mentions him… In a brief throwaway passage in the Antiquities, Josephus writes of a fiendish Jewish high priest named Ananus who, after the death of the Roman governor Festus, unlawfully condemned a certain “James, the brother of Jesus, the one they call messiah,” to stoning for transgression of the law. The passage moves on to relate what happened to Ananus after the new governor, Albinus, finally arrived in Jerusalem. Fleeting and dismissive as this allusion may be (the phrase “the one they call messiah” is clearly meant to express derision), it nevertheless contains enormous significance for those searching for any sign of the historical Jesus. In a society without surnames, a common name like James required a specific appellation — a place of birth or a father’s name — to distinguish it from all the other men named James roaming around Palestine (hence, Jesus of Nazareth). In this case, James’ appellative was provided by his fraternal connection to someone with whom Josephus assumes his audience would be familiar. The passage proves not only that “Jesus, the one they call Messiah” probably existed, but that, by the year 94 C.E., when the Antiquities was written, he was widely recognized as the founder of a new and enduring movement… That’s pretty much all we have but it is significant.

Q: In that same vein of thought, is there hard evidence that Muhammad existed? Which religious figure has more physical evidence?

A: Good question. We have a good deal of writings about Muhammad from his followers and his detractors that suggests that the man himself was a real person who started a movement sometime around the beginning of the 7th Century AD. But, as with Jesus, these are not historical documents. They are mainly testimonies of faith written by communities of faith many years after the events they described. So we are left to cull whatever historical information we can get from them by analyzing their claims in the light of what we can know about the history of the time. That’s what separates studies of Jesus from studies of Muhammad: we have a LOT more information about Jesus’ world (thanks to the Romans) than we do about Muhammad’s… I did my best to reconstruct Muhammad’s world in my first book No god but God: The Origins, Evolution, and Future of Islam.

Q: If you we take into account that everything in the Bible is not meant to be taken literally – Do you think Jesus actually proclaimed himself to be the Messiah because he believed he was the Messiah? Or is that a title he assumed to lend himself more legitimacy? Or was it a title ascribed to him afterwards by his followers?

A: The single most important thing to remember about Jesus is that he was Jew. Now that seems obvious but if it’s true then it means that everything he said or did must be viewed in its Jewish context. So if he claimed to be the Messiah, he meant the messiah as most Jews would have understood it: the descendant of King David, whose chief task was to restore David’s Kingdom on earth. The idea of a messiah who is also God simply did not exit in Judaism at the time.

Q: You state that Jesus of Nazareth was deeply involved with the politics of his time. Do you feel that present day followers of Jesus should follow that example? Do you feel that the most politically active fundamentalist Christians are effective in carrying the word of Jesus of Nazareth?

A: There was no difference in Jesus’ time between religion and politics. They were one and the same force (some would say that is still the case). Whatever religious claims Jesus would have made would have been instantly recognized by his audience as “political.” Especially the claim to be Messiah. After all, if you are claiming to be sent by God to usher in his kingdom, you are also claiming that you have been sent to usher OUT the kingdom of Caesar. That can’t go unanswered if you are Rome.

Q: Do you think people will ever get over the fact that Jesus was not a blonde hair blue eyed savior but actually someone who looked like one of the locals?

A: I like to say that Jesus probably looked like me… but then that would make the collective heads at Fox news EXPLODE!


Q: As a scholar of religions, what is the fundamental difference between the Abrahamic religions that prevents, historically, and culturally, a long lasting, peaceful interaction between these three (Judaism, Islam and Christianity)?

A: Perhaps it’s partly a result of monotheism. After all if you believe there is only one God then you could easily believe that there is only one path to that one God, that there is only one myth to describe God. That means all other paths/myths are not just wrong, they are ANTI GOD. They are evil and demonic. But the truth is that Judaism, Christianity, and Islam are providing similar answers to the same questions of ultimate concern. They are just using different sets of symbols and metaphors to do so.

Q: As a non-theist I find it difficult to begin any sort of religious practice in a world of literalists. How would you recommend approaching this problem?

A: You are not the problem. The literalists are the problem. Literalism is an extremely new phenomenon. It can be traced to the end of the 19th century. The people who wrote and compiled the Gospels were NOT literalists. If they were they would not have canonized four gospels which contradict each other on numerous facts of Jesus’ life. THEY DID NOT CARE about those contradictions because they did not read the texts literally. Neither should anyone else.

[Now, if you’d like to listen to a real interview with Aslan, check out his recent chat with Terry Gross.]

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  1. beauty salon
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 5:10 am | Permalink

    Why didn’t she ask him the hard questions, like why he hates America, and why he wants to cut off the heads of Christians and drink their blood?

  2. Edward
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 9:21 am | Permalink

    “Why would a Muslim need a PhD? This all sounds very suspicious.”

  3. double anonymous
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 9:43 am | Permalink

    Mr. Cousteau, why do you care so much about the ocean when you live upon the land?

  4. MK Ultra
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 9:58 am | Permalink

    I can’t find it at the moment, but I heard a quote from Aslan somewhere about crucifixion and how it was a death sentence reserved for political radicals resisting Roman rule. I haven’t read his book yet but given what I’ve read and heard it sounds like he’s making the case that Jesus was more a political revolutionary than a self-professed god.

  5. Eel
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 12:01 pm | Permalink

    It’s depressing as he’ll that people are giving this guy a hard time for saying that Jesus was a real man who fought against a terrible system, not unlike MLK, instead of a lunatic claiming to be god on earth.

  6. MMM
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 2:42 pm | Permalink

    Hopefully Terry Gross was nicer to him that she was to Gene Simmons.

  7. anonymous
    Posted July 30, 2013 at 3:29 pm | Permalink

    Yes! Why didn’t Gene Simmons get this kind of attention when he was attacked by Terry Gross?

  8. EOS
    Posted July 31, 2013 at 2:31 pm | Permalink

    There is a way that seems right to a man, but the end thereof, is death.

  9. Posted August 1, 2013 at 7:01 pm | Permalink

    If you have something to say, EOS, just come out and say it. As much as I’d like having an adversary like the Riddler, I don’t have time for it.

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